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Catholic Connections

By Joan Stumborg and Jeff Lynnes


If you had $100 and lost a loonie, would you go looking for the one dollar? Most of us probably wouldn’t bother.

If you worked in a school and had 99 eager young people who wanted to learn and were working hard to pursue their dreams, and one who had attitude, issues, little or no work ethic and quit school, would you focus on the 99 or the one?

Most would focus on the 99 young people who want to be there or at least come and engage the process. Phoenix Academy, an alternative high school in Moose Jaw, however, is a school that seeks the “lost” in order to get him or her back into the “fold.” It is a lived example of the parable Jesus told of the 99 sheep and the lost one.

Note: The following is not a “real” student, but a composite of different people’s barriers to accessing or completing their high school education.

He has been in three schools before setting foot inside the doors of Phoenix Academy. He didn’t succeed in any of them. None of them ever met him where he was at, in his opinion, and he does not hold out much hope that things can be different at Phoenix, yet his friends have told him it is very different. Whatever!

He was told he has to have an interview to see if he will be admitted or not. The interview is with the principal, Jeff Lynnes. The “new” student is 19 years old and has not completed Grade 10, let alone any Grade 12 courses. Every time he has tried to work on his education, he has gotten in trouble because of attendance, defiance, drugs, or jobs. He was identified as “at risk” when he was still in elementary school. He has seen counsellors, been through detox, and failed most of his classes every year since being given that label.

Something is different now, though. He realizes he needs to finish high school to go after his dream and he wants to get his Grade 12.

He didn’t feel he could return to any of the schools he was “kicked” out of so he picked up the phone and, with considerable hesitation, called Phoenix Academy. They gave him an interview. It is a second chance — more like a fourth chance, but then, that is the reputation of Phoenix Academy. It is all about second, third, and fourth chances.

The alternative high school lives up to its name. A phoenix rises from the ashes as a way of regenerating itself. It is a symbol that has been associated with Christ and the resurrection event. A phoenix is all about hope and new life. That is an accurate description of Phoenix Academy. Its Vision Statement is, “Meeting individual needs in a welcoming, empowering, and hope-filled learning community.” Part of that is helping students remove barriers and linking them with supports.

As Phoenix Academy’s educational assistant tours this young man through the building, the young man sees symbols of faith, First Nations artwork, as well as fresh fruit and healthy snacks. He notices students working independently in every room with teachers providing individual instruction and support. He is introduced to a school counsellor who he can access any day of the week for help and support, a counsellor from Five Hills Health Region who is available once a week and offers small-group sessions for anxiety in addition to individual services for mental health and addictions.

He checks the student/teacher ratio and quickly realizes there are only seven or eight students for each teacher and students are calling teachers by their first names. He is told that school doesn’t start until 9:30 a.m. and that night school is offered three nights each week. Maybe he won’t be late every day since students can contract and set their own hours. He can still work and support himself while attending school. This is different, as is the concept of working at his own pace and setting goals for that work at Friday meetings with staff. His initial sense of dread turns into hope. This really is a new beginning. He is the phoenix.

Phoenix Academy is an alternate high school in Holy Trinity Catholic School Division. It was designed to accommodate students whose needs were not being met in the traditional school system. It strives to facilitate academic success for at-risk youth who may have dropped out of school.

Phoenix Academy offers regular and modified classes at the 10, 20, and 30 level for students 15 - 22 years of age. The school believes that “Learning is the constant; time is the variable.” In keeping with that philosophy, students work at their own pace with clear goals they establish in meetings with the instructional team every two weeks. If they are not meeting those goals, then learning contracts are set up with the individual: barriers are identified, supports are offered, timelines are created collaboratively.

Students with learning challenges have ready access to teachers who provide one-on-one instruction. There are also night school options three days per week for students who work in the day or day students who would like extra help at night. This allows considerable flexibility for those students who are trying to support themselves or their family or are trying to hold a job at the same time as completing their education.

Phoenix is part of Holy Trinity Catholic School Division so it is a Catholic school with an exceptional daily focus on being lived examples of the Gospel. It is about responding to the deepest longing of young people’s hearts: being accepted, finding belonging, and being loved for who they are, not who we think they should be. The church comes to them and meets them where they are at. It may be Right To Life providing free clothing and other items for our young moms and dads; it may be Kids First offering support in the home for the new parents as well as free access to the Good Food Box for a period of time; it may be our parish or school division responding to a call for a rug, a couch, warm clothing, or food hampers. It is the staff that welcomes all who come through the school’s doors, whether it is their first time or their fifth attempt at getting an education.

Many of our students need the one-on-one attention that the staff at Phoenix can provide. That time is often more about creating relationships and discussing life issues beyond the academic material. That significant adult mentor might be the turning point the student needs to find his/her motivation to succeed. Being a lived example of the Gospel for the students might also be an entire community pooling resources to support these young people as they deal head on with issues like addiction, anxiety, depression, so they can forge a new path. The interagency supports are celebrated at Christmas with invitations to Phoenix Academy’s Christmas luncheon where staff, students and outside agencies break bread together. We celebrate individual successes and milestones on the journey.

Grace, Mercy, Peace is the theme for Holy Trinity Catholic School Division this year. It is in keeping with Pope Francis’ call to the global Catholic community.

Grace, for Phoenix Academy, is recognizing the need in each person and responding to that need while maintaining the dignity of the person. It is about seeing the face of God in each student and celebrating the successes or “God moments” along the way.

Mercy is giving people second, third, fourth, and fifth chances, which is done by employing individual contracts for learning hours, having staff mentors for students, providing counselling supports and small groups, serving meals, and connecting students with outside agencies either on site or off.

Peace is helping students discover the wonder of who they are, their strengths and gifts, their supports and resiliency so they can become all God is calling them to be. Peace is about building hope. That is Phoenix Academy — a place of Grace, Mercy, Peace, and Hope.

Joan Stumborg is a school counsellor at Phoenix Academy. Jeff Lynnes is the principal at Phoenix Academy.